To paraphrase the title of a 20-year-old John Ford Noonan play, Bill Bruehl’s Short-Haired Grace concerns " a coupla bald chicks sitting around talking. " The tress-impaired lady of the title is the legendary Irish pirate/patriot Grace O’Malley, known in her homeland as Gráinne Ní Mháille or Granuaile. Combining hairlessness with hauteur is Queen Elizabeth I of England, in whose plan to impose on Ireland the English language and the English Church the fighting O’Malley is a thorn in the side. In the mid 1590s, O’Malley apparently petitioned the Queen for a parley and a pension, and the two met at Greenwich Palace, near London. Bruehl’s play, which is in its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, imagines that encounter, throwing in the Queen’s henchman in Ireland, Sir Richard Bingham, like some macho rag for the sparring women to wipe the floor with.
Trouble is, Bruehl doesn’t seem quite sure what the meeting is about. In a program note, the playwright explains that what struck him about the story of O’Malley, who for 40 years rode herd over the seas west of Ireland, was the way in which she could be perceived, depending on your point of view, as a heroine or a terrorist. But the play does not develop that relevant theme, and it’s unbelievable to boot. If the meeting actually went as Bruehl imagines it, Grace would have lost more heads than a hydra has before it was done.
Moreover, in Short-Haired Grace, the aptly shorn O’Malley comes across as more a poteen-swigging gimcrack than either a heroine or a terrorist. She and Elizabeth, both of whom are in their 60s, expend most of their chat ricocheting between political jockeying and ageism-defying feminist bonding. It seems that neither the old queen nor the old pirate has ever had a gal pal, though in the end neither will keep her promise to the other. Elizabeth, plaintively crying after her nemesis, " Come back and sit down with old Queenie, " will nonetheless have to suck it up and go after her head. (In fact, O’Malley eluded the ax, not dying until 1603, the same year as Elizabeth.)
Director Charles Towers, in a pre-performance opening-night talk that characterized Short-Haired Grace as a work in progress, described it as " a play about political manipulation and language. " Yet its ballyhoo’d language ping-pongs, preposterously, among period stiltedness, Sea Hawk cliché, and slangy, anachronistic chumminess. " Can trust and power live side by side in the human heart? " , Grace wonders ponderously. Bingham, for his part, refers to her as " an Irish sea wolf " and " treachery incarnate " (not to mention a " baggy old slut " ). And Elizabeth, looking every inch the royal vulture in her rich gown and pointy red wig, invites the pirate to " call me Liz. " At another point she admonishes the battle-clad Bingham that he looks like " a shat-upon turtle. "
At Merrimack, however, Short-Haired Grace is handsomely, simply turned out on a bare stage bathed in lush light (or the shadow of bars, when Bingham takes Grace on an intimidating little tour of the queen’s dungeons). Annette Miller’s Elizabeth, in particular, is luxuriantly and vibrantly garbed by Frances Nelson McSherry. Towers keeps the talk, whether defiant or friendly, zipping along. And the play is well if broadly acted — with brave straight faces, no matter how stilted or unlikely it becomes.
The reliable and regal Miller has the hardest task, having to create an Elizabeth who is tough as nails yet almost ludicrously approachable. She maintains her dignity even when hurling odd epithets at " Dickie " or ghoulishly presenting Grace with the crated corpse of one of her beloved Irish wolfhounds — over which Jennifer Sternberg’s Grace must keen like Lear over Cordelia. Sternberg’s nimble, gray-cropped Grace is more likable, as she’s the underdog and her part is less woodenly written. Both women, when given something to argue passionately, whether it’s Elizabeth’s adamancy about creating order in the world or Grace’s plea that a culture not be tyrannously usurped, do so with vigor. Roger Forbes brings what flash and menace he can to male-porcine lackey-to-the-crown Bingham. But Bruehl’s play can’t decide whether it’s Masterpiece Theatre or Theater of the Ridiculous, and it strains credibility as surely as its principals did the female strictures of their time.